In praise of the alpha female
It is surely time to recognize what an immense improvement has been wrought in world standards of governance by the rise of female national leaders. Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi were effectively the pioneers, among democratically elected leaders, though the genius of a considerable number of previous empresses and queens gave a foretaste of what the world was denying itself in excluding women from its highest public offices (and most other important positions). Queen Elizabeth I was the greatest British monarch; Victoria was certainly competent, and although such comparisons are odious, the present queen surely has better judgment than have most of the 12 British and 11 Canadian prime ministers who have served her.
Meir was a strong Israeli foreign minister and a tough prime minister, who though somewhat taken by surprise in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, made Israel a nuclear power and governed intelligently in the socialistic tradition. Indira Gandhi, after a brief interregnum following the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, inherited the leadership of her country. She, too, continued the socialistic policies of her father and (unfortunately) the insufferably pretentious practice of sitting in the rose garden of the prime minister’s residence in New Delhi, fondling a flower and explaining that India was the moral arbiter of the world because of its secular spirituality and ethical exaltedness, despite its poverty, indulged primitiveness, hypocrisy and corruption.
She sliced Pakistan in two in 1971, created Bangladesh (greeted on the day of its founding by Henry Kissinger as “a basket case, but not our basket case”); promoted India’s nuclear program, but suffered temporary electoral defeat over her imposition of mandatory sterilization to combat rampant population growth (impossible in even a quasi-democracy). South Asia was a rough-and-tumble political environment, as Indira was assassinated, as were her protegé Mujibar Rahmin, the George Washington of Bangladesh; Indira’s son Rajiv, who succeeded her; and the next leaders of Pakistan — Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Zia ul-Haq, and Bhutto’s daughter Benazir. Indira Gandhi’s and Benazir Bhutto’s perseverance in such an environment was remarkable, and their heirs rule their countries yet.
The real breakthrough in leadership by women in sophisticated democracies came with Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. She had been education secretary in the government of Edward Heath (1970-4), who essentially continued what was called “Butskillism” (after Conservative deputy leader Rab Butler and 1950s-era Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell), whereby there were only marginal social policy differences between the two main parties, whatever rhetorical excesses they engaged in at each others’ expense at election time.